You'rs telling us it's total disclosure. You say those words. Those are the words they used to use.
Jody Powell leaned back in his chair and looked over the more than two dozen reporters who surrounded him. "Iam well aware," "that we deal with the situation in an historical context."
It was early Thursday afternoon and Powell was nearing the end of the first of two hour-long grillings he would go through that day on the Billy Carter matter. He meant by the "historical context."
He did not have to, for everyone understood. Watergate, the great scandal of the America presidency, is the background against which the Billy Carter controversy has been unfolding. Less than a decade old, that scandal has shaped reactions to the disclosures involving President Carter's brother and Libya and has never been far from the minds ofpresidential assistants who are dealing with the controversy.
For the press, the memory of Watergate has produced a frenzied search to uncover every unknown fact and inconsistency, and more than a week of page one headlines and nightly newscasts.
For members of congress, the memory of watergate has resulted in the creation of a special subcommttee of the Senate Judiciary Committee to question everyone involved, and scattered calls for a special prosecutor.
And for the president and his aides, the knowledge that the memory of Watergate is still fresh in the public mind -- they used Watergate to their advantage in 1976 and were already usingit again this year -- is haunting the effort to deal with the embarrassment of the president's brother.
As a result, the basic Carter WhiteHouse strategy in dealing with the controversy has been to appear as much unlike the Nixon White House as possible. Powell, by nature a highly combative man who likes nothing better than a good argument with a roomful of reporters, has been a model of patience and forbearance throughout the controversy as he has earnestly pledged to check out dozens of questions.
He has been joined in this effort to project an image of openness and candor by Lloyd Cutler, the White House counsel. Late one night last week, the gray-haired Cutler, the picture of lawyerly maturity, sat in the nearly deserted White House press room with a microphone pinned to him explaining to viewers of ABC that the White House had nothing to hide and that all the facts would be made public.
Yesterday, Powell continued the openness counteroffensive with an appearnace on "face the NATION" (CBS,WDVM). He added nothing to what is known about the Billy Carter matter, but used the occasion to suggest to jittery Democratic members of Congress that it would be "unwise from a political and moral standpoint" to jump to any conclusions about the case.
Perhaps the most striking example of the effort to appear as unlike Richard Nixon as possible was the president's pledge last week to cooperate fully with the Senate subcommttee. In the process, Carter not only offered up the sworn testimony of his national securityaffairs adviser. Zbigniew Brzezinski, and other members of his staff, but promised that he himself would "respond fully to the subcommittee's inquiries."
The statement left open the possibility that the president would testify and answer questions before the sub-committee. The White House has said this matter has not been settled, but atleast one carter loyalist is prepared to argue that the president would be making a serious mistake if he subjected himself to presumably televised questioning before the panel.
It was one thing, this Carter associate said, for former president Ford to testify on Capitol Hill about his pardon of Nixon, a direct outgrowth of the Watergate scandal. But for Carter to do the same on a matter that no one has yet suggested approaches Watergate in seriousness, he said, would set a "terrible precedent" for future chief executives.
That the president was willing to leave open the possibility he would testif testify in open session before the sub-committeeis one measure of how seriously he and his aides are taking the poilitical implications of the Billy Carter case. Earlier presidents would have scoffed at such a suggestion, but since Nixon and Watergate, no president, especiallyin an election, can afford even the slightest hint he is hiding something.
But precedents for the future of the presidency are of less concern in the Carter White House these days than Jimmy Carter's immediate political future. The Democartic National Convention convenes in New Ork City in two weeks. After that there is a fall campaign against Republican nominee Ronald Reagan.
The first elected president since Nixon Carter, with all of his other problems, cannot afford to go into that campaign with his carefully nutured image of honesty and candor tarnished.
And if the White House strategy works and there are not new damaging revelations, the image may not be tarnished. It was White House aides who all last week deliberately drew attention to the Watergate years, contrasting those dark days with their handling of the Blly Carter matter.
The whole mess has not done the president any good politically, but it just as conceivable that a few weeks of earnest explanation by Powell, Cutler and the others will not only minimize the political damage but remind voters of why, back in 1976, they preferred a relatively unknown peanut farmer to the man who had pardoned Richard Nixon.